Introducing the Language Continuum Concept:

A Strategic Plan and Notional Roadmap

for

Foreign Language Learning and Use

 

Remarks by Ambassador Michael Lemmon

Dean of the School of Language Studies

Foreign Service Institute

Department of State

 

The Dean is the only career Foreign Service officer in the School of Languages, and with my principal language background being that of a problematic student, I had and have a lot to learn. But the experience of being one of those officers who had to use foreign languages to get my job done has helped me focus on how to mesh the role of the School with the needs of our customers - the students, and our clients - the Department, Bureaus, and posts abroad.

 

I came to FSI exactly one month after the horrific events of 9/11. We at FSI all struggled to define our role in light of the new circumstances. Shortly thereafter, there was a senior staff offsite, where we addressed four strategic directions for the Institute. One of the strategic goals was the institutionalization of skills development in the Department of State. The Language Continuum concept is a reflection of that effort.

 

 

Several years ago, the notion of career-long development planning took hold and first saw the light of day with the Leadership and Management continuum, a manifestation of the Department of State's growing focus on the importance of training the leaders that the Department needs to meet the challenges of the new century and a post 9/11 world. We now have several other continua (Training Continuum for Foreign Service Generalists, for Civil Service Employees, for Foreign Affairs Community Life Skills) with more on the way. This morning I would like to outline for you the Language Continuum Concept: A Strategic Plan and Notional Roadmap for Foreign Language Learning and Use. While it is still under review and discussion within the State Department, it will give you an idea of the overall strategic approach that we are working on.

 

This spring, I had the honor to deliver the opening remarks at the Defense Language Institute's Annual Program Review in Monterey, California, on our shared "global language challenge" - an example of the closer, expanded interagency collaboration and dialogue post-9/11 on an issue that affects all Americans, both inside and outside the Government language community, and we had an excellent discussion with our language colleagues about how we all might do better.

 

 

 

 

The Challenge

Let me first address in general the USG dimension of the challenge and how we at the State Department are responding to it. There is, of course, a non-governmental dimension to this whole topic, but I will leave that for others to address at another time.

 

All of us in the interagency community confront similar, if not identical, language challenges, and yet, too often, we forget that we aren't confronting them alone and that we don't have to find all the solutions on our own.

 

We need to collaborate better in identifying more effective ways to address our common mission and shared challenges.

 

How do we better recruit, train, assign, retain, and further develop the cadre with those language capabilities that are needed to meet our various responsibilities, including, as Secretary Powell puts it: "create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community."

 

In the aftermath of the events of September 11, there has been increasing realization within the USG, the press and the public, that language competency is a national security issue and that our readiness to meet emerging linguistic challenges is flawed by inadequate interagency collaboration, failure to share expertise and resources, uncoordinated approaches to common problems, and extensive bureaucratic stove-piping.

 

The Intelligence Community agencies, including State, are working together in the FLEXCOM (the Foreign Language Executive Committee that reports to the Director of Central Intelligence) and its Foreign Language Committee to overcome these hurdles. The recent creation of the National Virtual Translation Center under the executive agency of the FBI is one concrete example of that effort.

 

The Strategy

While we are now working more closely and collaboratively in various interagency fora, there is still a long way to go.

 

As each agency addresses how it might better meet its own particular requirements, we have been sharing with one another each of our own "lessons learned" and "how to's," from new technological aids to training approaches to language incentive pay models.

 

The Department of State stipulates that the ability to use a foreign language to conduct the business of the United States is the hallmark of the successful Foreign Service Officer. The Department regards the fostering of that ability as a matter of official policy. At State, we have realized that language learning needs to be more than one-shot training for the next assignment.

 

Therefore, we undertook to develop a strategic concept and notional career-long roadmap for language learning and use -- the Language Continuum that we hope will encourage the attainment of broader and more advanced levels of language skills and assist the individual language learner to acquire, maintain and improve to a high level of competency. Equally important, it also provides a strategic framework within which the Bureau of Human Resources, FSI, and the geographic bureaus can partner and collaborate on building the cadres of advanced language users that the Department and the nation needs.

 

The Continuum weaves together language training offered by FSI/Washington, overseas field schools, the range of post language and distance learning programs worldwide, and "Beyond 3" language partnerships with select educational institutions overseas.

 

The Continuum:

         provides a notional 'roadmap' for employees at different stages in their careers - at entry, mid, and senior-level - intended to guide the language learner through multiple training opportunities;

         outlines a strategic plan for achieving the language competency needed for tenuring and for promotion to the senior level, with the goal of reaching high-level proficiencies in at least two languages before reaching the senior threshold;

         addresses the language training needs of eligible family members; and

         provides learning tips and ways to foster more effective language proficiency and use.

 

It offers a variety of approaches to follow and outlines an integrated notional "roadmap" through training and multiple assignments for individual language learners to acquire, maintain, and improve their language skills to a high level of proficiency in consultation with the Bureau of Human Resources and the geographic bureau/post concerned.

 

Language training represents a considerable investment in time and resources and once training is complete, the Department and the nation have an interest in having employees maintain and use their language skills.

 

Secretary Powell's Diplomatic Readiness Hiring Initiative, generously supported by Congress, has allowed us to increase the number of employees we hire and will go a long way towards giving us the people we need to do the job, and the time needed to train them adequately.

 

Knowledge of a foreign language touches all members of the Foreign Affairs Community:

 

Employees and family members with little or no language skills may feel isolated in a foreign assignment that can have a very negative effect on post morale, quality of life, and work productivity.

 

Employees who have acquired intermediate-level language skills may be able to do their particular jobs well, but often lack sufficient ability for day-to-day living. They also may need to function professionally at more advanced levels.

 

Those who have both solid professional and informal language skills for daily living may have been unable to advance to that "near native" level needed to engage in extemporaneous, unscripted debate and the give-and-take needed to credibly and competently make American's case to often skeptical foreign audiences - and understand their perspective in order to get our message across more effectively - what I call doing "Crossfire in Arabic."

 

The Game Plan

State has been working hard to develop new approaches and products to meet these needs:

 

         We have encouraged posts to expand the number and level of Language Designated Positions, and we are working to give Junior Officers more language training.

 

         Our Post Language Program Initiative, a congressional mandate, addresses the needs of those who traditionally have received little or no language training and provides opportunities for others to use the language they know in real life with real people.

 

         We have developed a range of distance language learning courses and other multimedia resources to assist language learners wherever they may be. These Distance Learning programs help people acquire, maintain, and improve language skills at home or abroad.

 

         We are updating our existing language courses to expand/improve language training for Consular and Public Diplomacy duties, and we are piloting "transition immersions" in languages where there are particular challenges reaching our language goals in the training time available (e.g., Hebrew, Russian, and Vietnamese).

 

         We are developing courses in languages that had not been taught for some time but have now become priorities in support of "Enduring Freedom," "Iraqi Freedom," and other post-9/11 priorities, including recent additions in Pashto, Sorani Kurdish, and Iraqi Arabic. In response to emerging needs, we put together, on short notice, Afghan Familiarization and Iraq Familiarization courses for those with little background in the country or language and invited our interagency colleagues to attend.

 

         Pilot programs are developing to refresh officers' rusty language skills ("back to 3"), including use of regional immersions for those already at post.

 

         Building on existing advanced programs at FSI and our field schools in Tunis, Seoul, Yokohama, Taipei, and a program in Beijing, we are exploring ways to partner with regional educational institutions overseas so our people can develop high-level language ("beyond 3") in a native-speaker environment.

 

Another element of the strategy to encourage people to acquire and maintain their language skills in "hard" or priority languages is the generous language incentive pay system, and we have shared our approach with our interagency colleagues.

 

These are all strands of an integrated approach that is intended to assist Foreign Service personnel in building the effective language skills necessary to do a better job throughout a career and to help bureaus/posts to build the cadre of competent language professionals we need to do the nation's business abroad and at home.

 

The diagrams that you will see here depict possible training opportunities in our three categories of languages for employees at different stages in their careers.

 

One notional example of a language training and assignment career path from entry through senior level for an officer seeking to achieve an advanced level of proficiency (level 4) in a super hard language such as Arabic would be to take up to 44 weeks of Basic Arabic at FSI/Washington after completing A-100 (the orientation course for new foreign service officers) and tradecraft training, such as consular, public diplomacy, administration, management, etc. Following a consular or rotational assignment at an Arabic-speaking post, a normal subsequent assignment would be to a posting elsewhere in the world (or occasionally in Washington) to provide broader geographic and/or functional experience for tenuring evaluation. While on these assignments, employees can continue to work on their language skills via Distance Learning, Post Language Programs or language immersion offerings.

 

After tenuring, an officer may bid on an assignment requiring an S-3/R-3 in Arabic which would lead to a second year of Arabic language training at the FSI field school in Tunis or possibly at another regional educational institution in preparation for further Arabic-speaking assignments at the mid-level. At a later stage, if an employee and the Human Resources-FSI-Near East Bureau agree, more advanced language training to the "Beyond 3" level may be considered for up to a year of immersion study at such institutions as the American University of Cairo, the University of Damascus or the Arab Academy for Banking and Financial Sciences in Amman, Jordan (for Economic Officers). Such training would be tied to an assignment to a Language Designated Position, followed by other assignments in the Near East region in preparation for senior-level responsibilities. These assignments should be complemented by non-Near East postings elsewhere in the world and Washington to provide the broad range of experience and expertise needed to compete at the senior level.

 

(Slide 4) Another notional example for a hard language such as Russian would be to take either the full 44-week Basic course to attain a S-3/R-3 or up to 36 weeks of training at FSI/Washington (normally attaining a S-2/R-2) followed by up to four weeks of "transition immersion" at a contract facility in Russia or elsewhere in the CIS prior to or after reporting for duty. An officer could continue to work on language skills development via Distance Learning or Post Language Program offerings while at post and in subsequent non-Russian speaking assignments. He/she could then take advanced ("back to 3" and "beyond 3") Russian training at FSI/Washington in preparation for subsequent Russian-language postings. Again, assignments to Russian-speaking posts would be complemented by assignments elsewhere in the world or Washington to provide that broader experience required at the senior level.

 

(Slide 5) Employees who begin service studying a world language such as Spanish or French would normally receive 23/24 weeks of training at FSI, achieving an S-3/R-3 before reporting to post. They could then use post language program offerings, local immersions and Distance Learning courses to maintain or improve their language skills. Later refresher and advanced training at FSI, usually offered during the summer months, can assist students in moving towards the S-4/R-4 level.

 

(Slide 6) In closing, I would like to cite the recently published FLEXCOM "Strategic Direction for Intelligence Community Foreign Language Activities" that makes a very useful point: "The advent of new foreign language technologies notwithstanding, the core of our ability to deal with foreign languages and with foreign nationals ultimately depends on people with superior foreign language skills."

 

And it is this emphasis on the importance of people that we need to keep in mind as we continue to examine how best we can develop the significant language capabilities we need to defend, protect and advance the interests of the United States in a complicated and increasingly integrated world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2007 Interagency Language Roundtable